It’s very nearly summer in the United Kingdom (not that you’d know it from the weather,) and increasing number of books and articles have begun to call attention to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration. Occurring this June, the Jubilee will celebrate Her Majesty’s 60 years on the throne and make a second year of important milestones for the British monarchy (last year’s being the wedding of Prince William). Plans include a royal flotilla, as well as a number of appearances by the royal family all around the world.
These events are part of a centuries old tradition of monarchy in Britain with its origins in the Middle Ages, and its symbols have become embedded in our own cultural expectations. Crowns carriages, regimented soldiers in brightly coloured uniforms have such potency not only because they communicate wealth and power (which they undeniably do) but also history. Thus, although they would look terribly outdated in any other context, these accoutrements endow the monarchy’s ongoing activities with a sense of historical weight, legitimacy, and pomp.
The symbolic, even ritualised, aspects of monarchy are not confined to European cultures. In fact, we are very fortunate that a Chinese source from the mediaeval period has preserved a fascinating report of the ceremony which accompanied the elevation of a new qatun (or queen) in the 9th century Uighur Empire. Although there are no ermine trimmed robes or whimsical hats (for which the Queen seems to have a pronounced liking,) the passage shows that the concerns of a monarch to impress his subjects hasn’t diminished:
“When we got to the barbarian court, we selected an auspicious day to give the princess her appointment as the Uighur qatun. The qaghan [Khan=king] first ascended his tower and sat facing the east. He had had set up a large felt tent below the tower to house the princess, and he had sent a group of barbarian princesses to teach her barbarian customs. Not until then did the princess remove her Tang [Chinese] clothing and put on barbarian clothes, for which an old woman waited on her. She came out in front of the tower and made an obeisance towards the west. the qaghan was sitting looking at her. The princess bowed down a second time and, when she had finished, she re-entered her felt tent. She removed what she had previously been wearing and put on the clothes of a qatun, a single-coloured robe and a large mantle, both crimson, and a golden decorated head-dress, pointed in front and straight behind. She came out to the tower and bowed down to the qaghan as in the first part of the ritual. The barbarians had set up a large sedan-chair with a curved screen in front of which they had arranged a small throne. Some ministers led the princess onto the sedan-chair. A minister of each of the nine clans of the Uighurs carried the sedan-chair and they followed hte sun, turning to the right around the court nine times. Then the princess descended from the chair and went up the tower where she sat with the qaghan facing the east. From then on, whenever the ministers and the inferior courtiers made obeisance, they bowed also to the qatun…”
This Chinese princess may be worlds away from the modern monarchy of Queen Elizabeth, but her fine clothes and her imperious circuit around the court borne by her new ministers bears an uncanny similarity to the pageantry of Britain’s royalty. Clearly, it has never been enough for a queen, whether newly crowned or 60 years on the throne, simply to look magnificent–she must be seen too look magnificent for her authority to be fully realised and appreciated.
The source for the extract cited above is
Chin T’ang-shu, ed. and trans. Colin Mackerras, The Uighur Empire (744-840) According to the T’ang Dynastic Histories, (Canberra, 1968)
which is an adaptation of the slightly earlier Hsin Tang-Shu, uploaded online here.